Image by PankeysonPhotos from Pixabay

Flights canceled. Trips rescheduled. Group gatherings and events, once the centerpieces of daily life, have faded into distant, blurry memories. Prolonged isolation is taking a massive toll, as the COVID-19 pandemic perpetuates across the country and around the world. In the U.S., reports of anxiety disorder symptoms among adults have jumped from one in 12 last year to one in three today. More than ever before, youth and adults alike are desperate for connection and an outlet from the harsh realities of life during a pandemic. 

Even before the coronavirus shook our plans and daily lives, feelings of detachment were growing across cultures, largely due to the rise of Internet use and smartphone distraction. While our increasingly digital world is often the scapegoat for this increase in loneliness, it also offers solutions. Namely, online games, which have gained a new level of momentum during the pandemic and proven their staying power as a viable channel for people around the globe to find belonging and friendship. 

Contrary to their virtual nature, video games are becoming inextricably linked to social connection, in completely novel ways beyond what social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram provide. Traditionally, games have always provided a social outlet for people who feel as though they don’t otherwise fit in. Early video games like Pac-Man at the arcades, tabletop and trading card games like Dungeons & Dragons and Pokemon have for decades given self-professed “misfits” an inclusive place to make and be with friends. 

As video games have advanced, and moved online, this phenomenon has expanded to include communities of players from all walks of life, men and women of every generation, all over the globe. Games have shown to offset male loneliness, a growing public health epidemic in America, giving men an acceptable way to interact with long-distance, real-life friends, from whom they may be detached due to lockdowns, geography or other life commitments.  Another recent study found that gamers over the age of 50 grew from 40.2 million in 2016 to 50.6 million in 2019. 

In the first quarter of 2020, games as a social activity went even more mainstream, with people around the world turning to video games to combat isolation amid coronavirus lockdowns. Video game spending during that time hit a record high of $10.86 billion. The next iteration in this movement will be increasing and continued growth of “connected gaming.” In this category, games are designed around establishing a deep sense of community, via virtual, in-game interactions between real people. It’s not just social gaming, in which players post high scores and compete on leaderboards posted on Facebook. Connected games are inherently social by design, to build vibrant, genuine communities of friends, families and support systems. As this category evolves, connected games will build upon the current interactive elements in games, with live video, streaming content and other multimedia mechanics. 

As an example, my company FlowPlay creates immersive, connected games such as Vegas World and Casino World, where players meet virtually to play casino games and socialize. Many players have stayed for years, having built yearslong, lasting friendships and relationships with people they met in the games. This time last year, we held our very first Vegas World meet-up in real Las Vegas, where players who had developed friendships online through the game could hang out in real life. Many gaming companies offer similar gatherings, like Blizzard Entertainment’s annual BlizzCon, for players to meet their online friends offline, as a real, in-person community. The success of these types of events underscore the vitality and belonging connected games provide for players around the world. 

One player who attended the Vegas World meet-up first started gaming online with his mother and brothers as a distraction from the recent loss of their father. Newly relocated to Las Vegas, the family found community in a social casino game. The player eventually met a woman within the game, and the pair developed a romantic relationship. The couple is now so connected that the player writes his partner and her son poetry. While the two have never met in person, they connect in the game every day, finding in the virtual world a companionship that has eluded them in their daily ‘real world’ lives.

Another player met her best friend in the game six years ago, and soon after meeting, the pair exchanged phone numbers. Now, they call and text each other every day, in addition to meeting up in the game. They were able to meet face-to-face for the first time last year. 

These are just a sliver of the countless inspiring stories of people who have found unprecedented belonging and friendship through playing games. And while we’re experiencing a time where events, social gatherings and trips may seem like a distant dream, we’re also experiencing a time where connection is omnipresent with the rise in internet usage, social media networks and online games. Dynamic communities in online games will continue to grow, and prove to be vital for the mental and emotional well-being of players of any age across as we face an unknown and stubbornly “remote” future.